Do you darn old socks? Take your shoes to the cobblers? Or put patches on your elbows and knees when they thin out? A recent Swedish study suggests extending the life of our clothes is the single best thing we can do for the planet.
Fashion cycles and consumer habits have drastically changed over the past decade or two. Clothes are being produced faster and more cheaply, and in larger quantities than ever before. Fast fashion brands have flooded the market, and with them a deluge of waste, pollution and carbon emissions.
That’s why researchers in Sweden have taken a detailed look at the life cycle of modern clothing. The recent study out of the Chalmers University of Technology has generated the most comprehensive life cycle analysis of the environmental impact of our clothing to date. And the results are fascinating.
We’ve always known the textile industry was impacting our environment, but now we can see exactly how. Researcher Sandra Roos reveals a number of big issues facing the clothing manufacturing processes, the most significant issue is production. Production accounts for a massive 70 percent of the overall carbon footprint of the fashion industry. That’s even more than distribution (4%), washing and drying (3%). Surprisingly, she found the emissions from shopping trips – largely taken by car in Sweden – came in second, with a significant (22%).
As expected, Roos’ research found that cotton farming drastically damages the land on which it is grown. But, her research also reveals a problem in the processing stages of other fibres such as nylon, wool and polyester. It is the chemicals used in the weaving, knitting and dyeing of these materials that are as dangerous as growing cotton.
The best thing you can do
The researchers say that the lifecycle of a piece of clothing could be between 100-200 wears, but only a fraction of garments ever stay in our wardrobes that long. Shoppers in Europe and North America buy about 50 new items of clothing per person each year. But given how much of an item of clothing’s impact is in production, buying fewer clothes and getting more wear out of the ones we have is the single most important thing we can do to stop our fashion tastes impacting the planet. Or as Sandra Roos put it:
If you want to be as eco-friendly as possible, there is only one thing you need to remember: use your clothes until they are worn out. That is more important than all other aspects, such as how and where the clothes were manufactured and the materials they are made ofSandra Roos
So, what can we do to extend the life cycle of our clothing? Below are some more useful points from Sandra Roos’ research to become a more conscious shopper:
- Give away or sell your clothing to extend its life cycle. This one comes with a caution. Merely dumping your fast fashion in the charity bin so you can buy more contributes to the oversupply clothing and does nothing to stop production impacts. On the other hand, actually buying secondhand clothing instead of buying new is a great step in the right direction.
- Look for eco-friendly materials, including natural materials such as organic cotton, hemp, linen, silk or recycled wool, or low impact materials such as Lenzing Modal and lyocell (also known as Tencel).
- Think about how you wash and dry your clothes. Each wash shortens the life of a garment. Tumble drying has an even bigger impact, using five times more energy than washing. Using a good, old-fashioned clothes line when possible will definitely be good for both your clothes and the environment.
- Invest in clothes that are made from high quality materials, so we can get more wear out of our clothing.
- Resist ‘trends’ and the urge to buy endless amounts of clothing. Instead, buy a small amount of high quality, timeless pieces that you love and will wear over and over again.
- Look for ethical fashion brands that care about reducing their carbon footprint. The free Good On You app is a great resource that rates brands according to their environmental impact, and their treatment of workers and animals. Look for brands rated ‘Good’ or ‘Great’!